John Mayer's new album, Born and Raised, has been out for a couple of weeks now, and more reviews seem to have been written on this album than on most new releases lately. Many have harped on this album's Southern California rock vibe, which is entirely true. This is a far different album than John Mayer's put out before.
Aside from the overall vibe of the album, the biggest change in this album is what he's singing about. This isn't an album full of forlorn love songs, or songs that seem to be written as if he were inside the head of every woman in America. This album is different. This is the album where John Mayer finally grows up.
But first- the sound. Although the album has been out for a couple of weeks, I hesitated to write about it because I wanted to give it a good, solid chance to sink into my brain and see which tracks stood out after repeated listening. I liked Battle Studies when I first heard it, but I hardly ever listen to anything on it now, and I wondered if the same would happen with Born and Raised.
Before even listening, this album was already intriguing. We are all aware of the infamous Playboy interview and the aftermath from a few years ago. After years of being an over-sharer, he had to face the music for his own comments, quit Twitter, and basically kind of went away. The moment he first seemed to get it- that its not about what he wants to talk about, its about the music- is when he said just after the brouhaha, "I quit the media game. I'm out. I'm done. I just want to play my guitar."
Which brings us to Born and Raised. It is most definitely an album full of lyrics from a contrite writer, perhaps most poignantly in the chorus of his first single, "Shadow Days": "I'm a good man, with a good heart/Had a tough time, got a rough start/ But I finally learned to let it go", and the track "Born and Raised". But the mood of the album isn't completely overshadowed with this tone- instead, its there, as if to acknowledge it, and then move on. Move on to the music.
So what is the music, and what stands out? This album is a pure throwback to 70's Southern California rock, in the vein of America, The Eagles, and Crosby Stills & Nash (Crosby & Nash even provide backing vocals on this album, as if to add to the authenticity). There's also a bit of country twang ("Shadow Days"), a bit of John Mayer bluesyness ("Something Like Olivia"), and a bit of a pop driven love song ("Love is a Verb"). "Queen of California" opens up the album like a road trip up the PCH in a "Ventura Highway" style, with its muffled beat and sunny SoCal style grooves. It is completed with lyrics about "heading out west with my headphones on" and looking for the place where "Joni wrote Blue in her house by the sea" and "looking for the sun that Neil Young hung", making it clear what he is trying to conjure up. But it is the second half of "If I Ever Get Around To Living" that sealed the old school SoCal vibe for me. It's a tempered sound with repeating vocals of "When you gonna wise up, boy?" in a softened style, a la "Tin Man" by America.
"Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967" is pure storytelling, with a steady rat-a-tat drum beat and a melancholy yet resolved tone. It completes the journey of this album as an album that wants to be blues, country, rock, and with this, good storytelling.
We love a good story, and this album draws on the backstory of the Playboy interview and the troubles he's had over the past year with his vocal chords. But in the end, the music is what makes it complex- there's hints of all of his talents on here, as well as his ability to take a different sound and style than what he normally does and make it sound, well...normal. Not contrived.
What's ironic is some of his most mature sounds have come from previous albums, when he was in his twenties. As he got into his early thirties, he seemed to start down a different path, one not so much about the music, but more about the caricature of John Mayer. This album is not secretly his attempt at reclaiming who he used to be - a guy with his guitar who has an insane talent. What he chooses to do with the talent is up to him.
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